Walton Arts Center, UA officials discuss expansion study

The Old Field House building on the UA campus could be converted into a 600- to 700-seat performing arts center.

Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

The Walton Arts Center’s expansion plans became a little more clear on Tuesday, after the results of an almost year-long study were presented to the board of directors at a meeting inside Nadine Baum Studios.

Arts center officials commissioned the study from Schuler Shook, Webb Management, and Venue Cost Consulting last spring after the decision to build a large performance hall in Bentonville and a smaller hall in Fayetteville was announced in December 2010.

The consultants validated the need for the Bentonville hall as well as a new Fayetteville venue, but it appears that should a 600-seat theater be built in Fayetteville, it will likely be owned and operated by the University of Arkansas.

The study also recommended $20 million in renovations to the current Dickson Street facility.

UA takes over the 600-seat venue plans

Walton Arts Center CEO Peter Lane said early results of the Schuler Shook study indicated that the University of Arkansas, which operates in a partnership with the arts center, was in need of their own additional performing arts center instead of continuing to use the Dickson Street facility for music rehearsals and other university performances.

Upon receiving that news, university officials in August requested that the consultants look into the possibility of renovating a current space on campus. Consultants determined that the Old Field House could be converted into a 600- to 700-seat theater for $15 to 20 million.

“Right now the only thing we have other than the Walton Arts Center is the Stella Boyle Smith Hall and that is a venue of about 300 seats,” UA chancellor David Gearhart told the Walton Arts Center board Tuesday. “It was built 60 years ago for a student population of about 5,000 students. We are now approaching 25,000, so it’s just woefully inadequate for our needs.”

The field house building is situated between the Arkansas Union and Silas Hunt Hall, and was built in the 1930s. The building was originally a basketball gymnasium, and has since been a concert venue, a museum, and most recently, a swing space for the architecture program during the current construction project at Vol Walker Hall.

Gearhart said the university doesn’t currently have the funds for the renovation project, but that he has some ideas about how it could be raised.

“We do not have the money to do it, however, we are in the process of talking with some folks about whether or not they would want to help us with that project,” he said. “I can tell you that it has received a lot of enthusiastic support from our faculty in our college of Arts & Sciences who really need more space.”

Gearhart said he expects the space will primarily be used for university music department performances, and that it will also be made available to the Walton Arts Center, as well as to the City of Fayetteville.

If the project is approved by the UA Board of Trustees, Gearhart estimated it would take about a year to complete.

Renovations of the Fayetteville campus

The Schuler Shook study recommended extensive renovations to the Walton Arts Center’s current Fayetteville location on Dickson Street.

“Upgrades to the existing Fayetteville facilities are critical,” consultant Bob Shook told the board. “The front-of-house areas are really inadequate, both for standard performances, and even more so for the potential for corporate events…Second reason, back-of-house facilities are very restricted.”

An expanded lobby, larger dressing rooms, additional restrooms, and new lighting are some of the recommended upgrades to the current facility.

“Once a new theater gets built in Bentonville, this theater is going to start looking a little bit old and dowdy,” Shook said. “We don’t want this to be the poor cousin.”

Shook estimated that the total cost of the Fayetteville renovations would be about $20 million, and could be complete as early as 2016.

Bentonville theater update

The study indicates that a 2,000-seat venue will suffice in Bentonville, instead of the originally proposed 2,200 seats.

A 200-seat education theater should also be included, as well as an art gallery, and a lobby with space for a donor lounge to accommodate 100 people, the study suggests.

Shook estimated that the Bentonville construction would cost about $160 million, with a $20 million endowment recommended to help cover costs. If everything goes according to plan, the new facility will be open in 2018.

Arkansas Music Pavilion update

Lane told the board Tuesday that he was pleased with the recently acquired temporary home of the Arkansas Music Pavilion at the Washington County Fairgrounds.

Extra parking, access to I-540, and the potential to accommodate larger audiences are all advantages to the new location, Lane said.

The AMP will host about 15 shows this season, four of which have already been announced.

Lane said that the search for a longterm solution for the AMP is ongoing.

“I think the only thing that I can tell you right now is that we are Fayetteville focused, that we would like to be in Fayetteville, and that is our goal,” he said.

Executive summary of Schuler Shook study

Download this study